Renee Erickson is such a culinary powerhouse—her name synonymous with integrity, freshness, and unfussy refinement—that it can be easy to forget her success didn't happen overnight.
She was 25 years old when she took over Boat Street Café in 1998, transitioning from its chef to owner. "My mom was working in the dining room, my dad was in the kitchen," Erickson recalled in an interview with Eater many years later, comparing the nuttiness of that time to "an SNL skit."
In an interview with The Stranger last week, Erickson added, "There used to be a time at Boat Street like 20 years ago that I would make marinated olives, like, every day. At some point, I was like, 'Oh shit, I could make them for like a month, and they'd be the same, or better even.' There's this time where you just don't have the ability to consider things, and I think just having more people that are paying attention, and know what the goal is, will make it so much more successful."
Nowadays, she isn't spending any time marinating olives. She is overseeing one of the most exciting restaurant empires in the city.
In 2014, she published a critically acclaimed cookbook, A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus, which Bon Appétit called "an Ina Garten-like blend of effortlessness and luxuriousness." That same year, she opened three more restaurants with business partners Chad Dale and Jeremy Price: the Walrus and the Carpenter, an oyster bar/fancy fishing pub; the Whale Wins, an eatery serving wood-fired European/Pacific Northwest seasonal cuisine; and Barnacle, an Italian aperitivo and small plates bar.
Barnacle, in 2013, spurred the creation of an umbrella company, the restaurant group Sea Creatures. "It just felt like we needed to have a company that was largely branded, without it just being my name, because that felt weird," Erickson explained to me.
In 2015, Sea Creatures opened Bar Melusine, a French Atlantic-geared seafood and oyster restaurant on Capitol Hill. On the same block, in 2016, she also opened General Porpoise Doughnuts (with fillings like chocolate marshmallow and lemon curd) and Bateau (a high-end steak house overseen by Chef Taylor Thornhill with a focus on grass-fed French heritage breed beef raised at a Washington ranch, and butchered and dry-aged in house).
In 2016, Erickson won a James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest. Reflecting on the prestigious award and how she had built her company, she told The Stranger at the time, "I didn't have what most people consider normal mentoring. I just went to work for myself, which is very uncommon and hard. I was responsible for it all"—down to the olives—"but I was also doing everything that I expected my employees to do. It's not like I don't ask [my staff] to do a lot of really hard things all the time, but I also try to pay attention to some kind of balance."
Over the past 18 months, Sea Creatures has been carving their impressive niche even deeper into the local culinary landscape, expanding General Porpoise to new locations in Pioneer Square and Laurelhurst, and opening an Amazon-employees-only location inside the Seattle Spheres.
In addition to the private doughnuts, there are two more public ventures by Sea Creatures within Seattle Spheres, both of which debuted last year: Willmott's Ghost (a casual chic Italian-style eatery) and Deep Dive (a dark, swanky cocktail bar with an infamous $18 hot dog). Sea Creatures also acquired three restaurants from Josh Henderson's Huxley Wallace Collective: Westward, Great State Burger, and Saint Helens Café. The last has been reimagined as a French Bistro in the style of Boat Street, named for Erickson's dear old mum, and re-opened as Shirlee in April.
Erickson kept one of the dishes on the Saint Helens menu, the IPA-battered fish and chips, "because it's of the neighborhood and because they're really good," she said. "It's helpful to have something that's familiar and maintain some happiness, seeing as how we were changing everything else."
The rest of the dishes at Shirlee are (mostly) new: house cured charcuterie, a burger made with Bateau's dry-aged beef and served on a house made bun, a pork chop like the one they used to serve at Boat Street, a sockeye salmon with skin seared to crispy flaky perfection. "It's not rocket science there, we just make really delicious classic food," said Erickson.
In general, she says, "Most of our restaurants have come out of, selfishly a little bit, food ideas that I fall in love with and/or think would be fun to be creative around, and then we kind of end up finding a place that fits it."
She's ever humble about her success, and is quick to point out all the non-Renee elements that make it all work. First, it's her relationship with Price (the designer) and Dale (the financial mind and business strategist). "We all genuinely like each other, and respect what each other does in the company. We have our own lanes, so to speak." She explained that partnerships can be really challenging, and being able to rely on each other is key. "There's not a lot of time in the day, so it's nice to not feel like you have to watch over someone's shoulder."
Another element is making her culinary expectations clear and constant from the get-go. For instance, "Trying to maintain our standards around purchasing, teaching that to our teams, and trying to make that be the focus, I think helps in driving quality and also care for what you're doing." Which includes making sure her staff knows "what's safe to buy, what you can buy, what you can't buy, who to buy from, all that kind of stuff."
This means having a team working under her that she can trust to make sure her standards are being met while not telling them what to do all the time. Sea Creatures' executive chef Bobby Palmquist, whom she's worked with for 11 years, collaborates with her on menus, from conception to completion. "I think the company would be pretty terrible if it were all my ideas. I don't think it's smart to have one person do whatever they feel is right," she said. "I think we have a lot of people that work with us that are able and willing to bring their opinions and challenge us or ask us to do things that we maybe wouldn't have thought of, which is what's great."
Her role changes when personnel at her restaurants change. "Obviously we worked a ton at Shirlee. Wilmott's opened recently, so I am there a lot. Walrus, we just had a chef change so I'll be spending more time there. It's pretty fluid."
Though she's currently juggling 10 properties, they don't all require all her constant attention. In fact, once everything is in place—chef, space, staff, guidelines, etc.—she leaves well enough alone. Bateau hums along merrily without much of Erickson's involvement, and she says that's by design. "We've worked with Taylor a long time and really wanted to showcase his talents and the style that he is passionate about... He's really done it—he's pretty fantastic."
Nevertheless, it is Erickson's direction that drives the ship. None of these things would work without her instincts, talent, and fine-tuned touch at the helm.